Projection with John Lilly

2 min. read (or watch the video)

I love old books. Here’s a curious one from 1967: “The mind of the dolphin” by John Lilly. Lilly was a leading American neurophysiologist who believed a central cause of mental illness was failed communication. In the late 1950s Lilly opened the Communication Research Institute on the island of St. Thomas. There he and his team, including several dolphins, devised experiments in interspecies communication. Crazy as it my sound, NASA helped pay for it, hoping to learn about deciphering extra-terrestrial messages.

Lilly later moved away from his scientific dolphin studies, exploring “inner space” with LSD. But, I don’t think we should throw out Lilly’s dolphins with the proverbial bath water. Lilly and his colleagues collected new insights into dolphin physiology. His colleague Margaret Howe Lovatt even tried teaching one of the dolphins English. If you want the scoop on that, watch the BBC documentary “The girl who talked to dolphins” (

What inspires me is that Lilly approached dolphins as equals in some ways. That’s pretty special for the 1950s! He believed dolphins were at least as smart as humans, and given their lifespan and brain capacity, he thought they might draw on environmental memory beyond human capacity. Controversially — for many —he also physically penetrated the dolphin brain to detect its inner workings. Stuck on “language” in its more conventional sense, he hoped the dolphins would co-develop a code that both species could use with each other.

But he ran into the problem of “projection.” Projection is when we think we know what the other intends to say, but really we are just putting our words into their mouth. I think this happens a lot between humans too. We need some kind of triangulation. Another means of verification. Lilly tried all kinds of things, but he never quite got the results he hoped for. Ultimately, his dolphin enthusiasm waned, his funding was cut, and the project shut down. The ruins of his dolphin house are still on the island.

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By alexoehler

I am an environmental anthropologist at the University of Regina, Saskatchewan, Canada.